Thursday, September 30, 2010

Modest yearnings

Are seldom just that.

Take for instance the other night.
I aimed for the moon
And got three feet above my head.

I inhaled deeper, blew harder,
the smoke - no rings - got to four.

I then stood up and gained a solid six feet
over my previous attempt.

It wasn't the moon,
But I got somewhere.
I got up.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On the road

I've been reading Kerouac. Him of the Jack variety. And it struck me that I've never taken a 'road-trip'. I've travelled *by* road, been *on the road*, driven down *roads* that have taken me where I must be, but I have never *taken* a road-trip. I've never hitch-hiked, headed out on my own down a road I don't know the *end* of, (and I've only just discovered how much I love the mighty asterisk) with never so much as a penny (not a Penny - how I'd fit one into my pocket is beyond me) to my name.

And I'm thinking, this poses a serious crisis of credentials, when one has spent most of one's life thinking she's a gypsy. A neo-gypsy, so? A gypsy of the mind? The, dare I say it, soul? Is this enough? I mean, I'm not being chased out of France or anything (at least not that I know of), so does this mean I'm doing something drastically wrong?

Or, and I turn my once-Greek-now-Roman-broken-Parsi-beak/nose {insert correct option here: the light, the day, the angle determine it} up in disdain at the mere thought of it, am I just another mundane, prosaic soul constantly feeding herself the fallacy that there could be an elsewhere - or three or seven - for her, should she but choose to *act*? Have I the gumption to give up a job-a-home-a-life to start afresh-anew-again? Do I have to, seeing as Faerie is not an option (I tried applying for a visa {nasty freakin' selection process too - they said my ears weren't cat-like enough} but no cigars were handed out on that occasion. Of course, what cigars have to do with emigration is anyone's guess) for me?

Sonalee and I have been talking about "hitting (and hard) the road" for ages now. Perhaps we will, soon. I need to know. I *need* to know. I need to *know*.

Friday, September 24, 2010

And today, ladies and gentlemen

She will talk to you about her city. She believes now that there is truth in the adage 'ignorance is bliss'. Most of us live as unthinkingly as we die. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me you've stopped to think about the 'place' you are from as being more than an immediate, physical entity laid out afore you. Have you felt for its pulse? Have you grappled with its inane oxymorons? Explored its beautiful and disgusting paradoxes? Odds are you haven't. I know I hadn't. Not until I started writing about it. Not until, as it happens, someone asked.

This someone has become a dear, dear friend. He's been co-opted into my little world and has a multiple-entry visa into the ivory tower I call home. His name is Mayank Chhaya ( and he is a bloody prolific writer. He makes me feel - keenly - how much of a wastrel I am, and chides me to write more, better, faster. He's writing a book about Ahmedabad right now, and it was with regard to this that he looked up yours truly while in the city. He interviewed me for a 'biography' about the city, due out to commemorate its 600th year of 'being' in 2011. He asked me some poignant questions, and I had to dig deep to find some rather uncomfortable answers.

So here's what I think about Ahmedabad.

The reason I've lived in this city for as long as I have is that, and this is fast becoming my favourite phrase to describe it, Ahmedabad has always been conducive to the building of ivory towers. From what I know of the mad times my parents and their friends-relatives-peers have spent in the city; and from growing up here myself, the sense I’ve imbibed is that one can find the room, if one doesn’t mind living on the periphery of what passes for the ‘centre’ (real or imagined), to be who one wants to be, do what one wants to do, and live the way one wants to live.

However, what I am beginning to see as the increasingly myopic, stunted and stunting, insularity creeping into the new Ahmedabad; in other words, the passing of that opportune liminality I speak of above, is enough to make me, if not flee, at least seriously reconsider what I’m doing here and whether I can, in good faith, stay on indefinitely.

On whether She (think about it - this is *not* random capitalisation) thinks Ahmedabad has a core personality:

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to suggest that there isn’t one Ahmedabad – there are as many Ahmedabads ‘of the mind’, to borrow from Rushdie, as there are people living here, so a ‘core’ personality is probably something of a chimera.

That said, there do appear to be a number of ‘core’ impulses which drive the gigantic machinery of the city. High on that list appears to be a yen for what in short-hand is known as ‘development’ – when really all that is implied by this term the way it is used here is ‘infrastructure’; roads, electricity – we’ve got those sorted alright, but this is nowhere near holistic in conception.

Another core trait is the lack of ‘civic’ sense – we’re interested in getting somewhere (we’ll be hanged if we know where that somewhere is), and we want to get there now. Or ten minutes ago. The furtherance and ‘delivery’ of ourselves, at top velocity, and often with express disregard for any fellow ‘traveller’ is a definite identity-marker.

On Ahmedabad’s sense of a-historicity:

This is probably because we’ve been faced with a radical bid to re-write who we are, as a city, and where we’ve come from. Any ‘re-writing’ of history necessitates perfunctorily a disconnection from the world-as-it-has-been-written, and takes many guises: from bids to rename the city ‘Karnavati’, to pronouncing it the de-Islamicised ‘Amdavad’, instead of ‘Ahmed-abad’.

There seems too, I would imagine for some people, post the Godhra riots, a need to distance themselves from the burden of memory. This can take on the form of a near-obsessive compulsion to engage with the ‘future’, even at the cost of deracinating the present and rendering obscure the past.

Ahmedabad and/in the world:

Globalisation has affected Ahmedabad in myriad ways; some more obvious or blatant than others. There is a lot of money here – perhaps there has always been – but the way it is on display today is what is new. Ostentation is no distant cousin to crass capitalism and materialism, and today, there is an unapologetic flaunting of it, since it is no longer fettered by the quasi spiritual-religious moorings of societies bygone.

How my generation reads the city:

I’m going to have to say they don’t. It’s that simple. They probably hold (as I once did) that any place is what you make of it, and it has been, especially in the past, possible to make a fine life for oneself here. But that says nothing about the city itself. It’s a series of transactions – here’s what we want to do, and here’s how we’re going to go about doing it.

The city is never foregrounded; it is, in fact, the background score upon which our lives play themselves out. When it does decide to ‘intervene’ though (riots, floods, disasters), it’s almost always with the anguish of a spectator sidelined and abused too long. As Yeats prophesied, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

On 2002:

The riots of 2002 were the ‘coming of age’ from hell. It was the moment at which I realised that things could never be the same again; that we were mere pawns in the hands of bloody skilled players, and that we, as a city, had been done in. The gore-fest, the looting, the raping and pillaging were all witness to the fact that we’re only ever a razor’s edge away from death and destruction; that we might don the mantles of ‘secularism’ and ‘equality’, but that in reality, these are sad, shrivelled signifiers divorced many times over from the meaning they have been ascribed. Rhetoric. Jargon.

And worst of all, we became aware of the deafening silence of a civil society, an ‘intelligentsia’ caught unawares, unprepared to make sense of what had befallen us.

I'm hoping to goodness that The Who got it right, and that 'we won't get fooled again'. I'd raise my hat to that. Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Gandhi did to me.

The man is an imp, I tell you. He weasles himself into your brain, your heart, your soul (if you haven't struck any deals with a certain charmer in red at a crossroad near you) and does things to them all. He challenges the certainty of your vision; the way you make sense of this crazy little thing we call the 'world' in shorthand, and you come out...I want to say better, but I'll settle for 'different', for the experience. Here's a little note I wrote, applying for an advanced school on the life and thought of Gandhi at that splendid place I once called home (in a past life, as a Viceroy/Vicereine, possibly), the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla ( I was there last year, for the 'beginners' thoughtshop, and it was the most stimulating 2 weeks of my life in academia. Without further ado, I give you 'why' I must-need/have-to go back:

"I’ve been living with the idea of writing this note for the past month-and-a-half; struggling with it from the very day I received word from the Institute that it was making good the promise it made us about arranging an ‘advanced course’ on the life and thought of Gandhi as a follow-up to the Autumn School we were fortunate enough to have attended last year.

The reason I begin this note like so is that I need to establish just how much the experience of December past has meant to me. I want to say it changed my life – in fact, I will – it did change my life; in the subtlest of ways. A small example is that I’ve started thinking twice before I shine my high-beam onto a car which has not shown me the same courtesy. This act might sound like a trifle, but the first time I did it, it got me thinking about a larger ‘change’ being set in motion somewhere inside me. I finally understood that instead of merely doing unto others as they were doing unto me, it was more difficult to do unto them exactly what they were NOT doing unto me – showing consideration even in the face of apathy or wanton disregard. This, I learnt from Gandhi’s doggedness and unwillingness to back down and recourse to anything which might yield an end, but not satisfy his insistence on the purity of means.

I am both, a Ph.D. student working on the 19th century, as well as an educator in the field of Culture and Communication. Since working alongside the likes of Tridip Suhrud, Thomas Weber and Sudhir Chandra last year – all people who shared very generously of their time and knowledge – I’ve been grappling with the idea of constructing a course on Gandhi and the way he used-forged-disseminated what we today call ‘mass communication’. He was a brilliant semiotician – anyone who understood and deployed the everyday acts of ‘walking’ or ‘spinning’ with the efficacy that he did had to be – and the way he found and used symbols to elucidate for the larger public his ‘experiments’ with the nature and bounds of truth, make for fascinating study. I’ve wanted to work on this further, and see where we can find room for a questioning of this sort in contemporary Communications curricula and theory. This, I hope to do if I can return to the IIAS.

My research, as I mentioned, is also firmly focused on the changing dialectic of the language of social reform in the late 19th century. What the course on Gandhi last fall did for my understanding of the charged playing-field that was late 19th-century India is unparalleled; it taught me to question the age on and in its own terms, and gave me an entry-point into reconstructing the shared semiosphere those who lived and breathed in it had access to. Any retrospective understanding of what contemporary India is or has become is impossible without first understanding where we’ve come from, the seeds of which are sown, to my mind, most closely in the upheavals – social, legal, political – of the 19th century. A furthering of this understanding; seeing what Gandhi did, and recognising how it was a departure (or continuation, in some cases) from where the country-movement-people was/were at before he came to the forefront is precisely the grounding I need to better understand his forebears, the social reformers, politicians, journalists and writers of yore, who enunciated ‘nation’ and ‘freedom’ as ideas for the first time.

The opportunity to return to the IIAS and work on some of these issues anew would undoubtedly benefit my research and my teaching. Most importantly though, musing about Gandhi afresh would also re-validate my decision to drive with my headlights on low-beam. Or just maybe, walk instead."

Would you allow me back if I sent you this?

Monday, September 20, 2010

All you have to do is ask

I can't get enough of Neil Gaiman. That's all there is to it. His writing insinuates itself into my head, creating havoc with all the randomness which peoples aforementioned storage compartment, and then proceeds to take it apart. Little by little. Re-creating endlessly.

He's got me dreaming wolves of the were variety, living with the Endless (creating the rather disturbing issue of incestuous leanings - I'd explain, but it would distract me from can wait, so here goes - I'm in love with Morpheus. But I *am* his sister Death {Though I'm still stealing Pratchett's horse. Binky is mine. Hands/paws/mitts off, suckers}. This poses, as you can imagine, certain ethical dilemmas. Oh well. Such is life. Or whatever it is that anthropomorphic personifications call the passage of time - 'being', perhaps?), seeking opportunities to work with the 'Adjuster', and longing for my homeland, Faerie.

Last night, I was introduced to a sucker for bargains. A man of temperance in every other respect, but, as I said, a sucker for bargains. Peter Pinter wanted to 'dispose off' a Casanova-like figure from the accounting department, who was doing the business with his 'intended' (Aside: What is with inane pre/conjugal terminology? Intended? As a noun? I mean, really? And what does it mean when someone says they're "engaged"? That the idiot on the other line forgot to hang up? Ah, me). The people he contacts tell him they can get the job done for 500 quid. BUT. They have a special offer - 2 for 475, or 10 for less! Then of course, there's the 'wholesale' rate. 1000 people for a quid each. Something about how human life comes cheap springs to mind, but quickly sees what else it's sharing liminal mindspace with, and scampers back from whence it came. Next, he finds that for the princely sum of 4,000 pounds, he can get rid of the 14-million-odd people who stand between him and the throne of England (a cousin of his was married to a minor lordling). He's tempted, but suspects there's an even better deal he just might be passing up.

So he asks.
"How much for the world?"
"The world, Sir? Why, that would cost nothing. We've been prepared for aeons. It's just that we needed to be asked first."
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, the world ends.

It's that simple. All you have to do is ask.

This is a mighty long preamble, even for a meandering minstrel (no, I'm not, and yes, I only did it for the alliteration) like me {three points}. So, instead of giving you what I thought I would, I'll let the prologue double up as *the* thing itself. Notice how I avoid naming these rambling-wandering-treatises, even as I name them.

This one came out of Hazel asking me to write today. I said I'd consider it.
She did ask, after all.